Gizmodo is reporting that Harris Corp. is no longer selling Stingray IMSI-catchers (and, presumably, its follow-on models Hailstorm and Crossbow) to local governments:
L3Harris Technologies, formerly known as the Harris Corporation, notified police agencies last year that it planned to discontinue sales of its surveillance boxes at the local level, according to government records. Additionally, the company would no longer offer access to software upgrades or replacement parts, effectively slapping an expiration date on boxes currently in use. Any advancements in cellular technology, such as the rollout of 5G networks in most major U.S. cities, would render them obsolete.
The article goes on to talk about replacement surveillance systems from the Canadian company Octasic.
Octasic’s Nyxcell V800 can target most modern phones while maintaining the ability to capture older GSM devices. Florida’s state police agency described the device, made for in-vehicle use, as capable of targeting eight frequency bands including GSM (2G), CDMA2000 (3G), and LTE (4G).
A 2018 patent assigned to Octasic claims that Nyxcell forces a connection with nearby mobile devices when its signal is stronger than the nearest legitimate cellular tower. Once connected, Nyxcell prompts devices to divulge information about its signal strength relative to nearby cell towers. These reported signal strengths (intra-frequency measurement reports) are then used to triangulate the position of a phone.
Octasic appears to lean heavily on the work of Indian engineers and scientists overseas. A self-published biography of the company notes that while the company is headquartered in Montreal, it has “R&D facilities in India,” as well as a “worldwide sales support network.” Nyxcell’s website, which is only a single page requesting contact information, does not mention Octasic by name. Gizmodo was, however, able to recover domain records identifying Octasic as the owner.
The year has been a profoundly different one for us all, and like many of you, I’ve been adjusting, both professionally and personally, to this “new normal.” Here at AWS we’ve seen an increase in customers looking for secure solutions to maintain productivity in an increased work-from-home world. We’ve also seen an uptick in requests for training; it’s clear, a sense of community and learning are critically important as workforces physically distance.
For these reasons, I’m happy to announce the launch of Verified: Presented by AWS re:Inforce. I’m hosting this series, but I’ll be joined by leaders in cloud security across a variety of industries. The goal is to have an open conversation about the common issues we face in securing our systems and tools. Topics will include how the pandemic is impacting cloud security, tips for creating an effective security program from the ground up, how to create a culture of security, emerging security trends, and more. Learn more by following me on Twitter (@StephenSchmidt), and get regular updates from @AWSSecurityInfo. Verified is just one of the many ways we will continue sharing best practices with our customers during this time. You can find more by reading the AWS Security Blog, reviewing our documentation, visiting the AWS Security and Compliance webpages, watching re:Invent and re:Inforce playlists, and/or reviewing the Security Pillar of Well Architected.
Our first conversation, above, is with Jason Chan, Vice President of Information Security at Netflix. Jason spoke to us about the security program at Netflix, his approach to hiring security talent, and how Zero Trust enables a remote workforce. Jason also has solid insights to share about how he started and grew the security program at Netflix.
“In the early days, what we were really trying to figure out is how do we build a large-scale consumer video-streaming service in the public cloud, and how do you do that in a secure way? There wasn’t a ton of expertise in that, so when I was building the security team at Netflix, I thought, ‘how do we bring in folks from a variety of backgrounds, generalists … to tackle this problem?’”
He also gave his view on how a growing security team can measure ROI. “I think it’s difficult to have a pure equation around that. So what we try to spend our time doing is really making sure that we, as a team, are aligned on what is the most important—what are the most important assets to protect, what are the most critical risks that we’re trying to prevent—and then make sure that leadership is aligned with that, because, as we all know, there’s not unlimited resources, right? You can’t hire an unlimited number of folks or spend an unlimited amount of money, so you’re always trying to figure out how do you prioritize, and how do you find where is going to be the biggest impact for your value?”
Check out Jason’s full interview above, and stay tuned for further videos in this series. If you have an idea or a topic you’d like covered in this series, please drop us a comment below. Thanks!
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One of the things we learned from the Snowden documents is that the NSA conducts “about” searches. That is, searches based on activities and not identifiers. A normal search would be on a name, or IP address, or phone number. An about search would something like “show me anyone that has used this particular name in a communications,” or “show me anyone who was at this particular location within this time frame.” These searches are legal when conducted for the purpose of foreign surveillance, but the worry about using them domestically is that they are unconstitutionally broad. After all, the only way to know who said a particular name is to know what everyone said, and the only way to know who was at a particular location is to know where everyone was. The very nature of these searches requires mass surveillance.
The FBI does not conduct mass surveillance. But many US corporations do, as a normal part of their business model. And the FBI uses that surveillance infrastructure to conduct its own about searches. Here’s an arson case where the FBI asked Google who searched for a particular street address:
Homeland Security special agent Sylvette Reynoso testified that her team began by asking Google to produce a list of public IP addresses used to google the home of the victim in the run-up to the arson. The Chocolate Factory [Google] complied with the warrant, and gave the investigators the list. As Reynoso put it:
On June 15, 2020, the Honorable Ramon E. Reyes, Jr., United States Magistrate Judge for the Eastern District of New York, authorized a search warrant to Google for users who had searched the address of the Residence close in time to the arson.
The records indicated two IPv6 addresses had been used to search for the address three times: one the day before the SUV was set on fire, and the other two about an hour before the attack. The IPv6 addresses were traced to Verizon Wireless, which told the investigators that the addresses were in use by an account belonging to Williams.
Google’s response is that this is rare:
While word of these sort of requests for the identities of people making specific searches will raise the eyebrows of privacy-conscious users, Google told The Register the warrants are a very rare occurrence, and its team fights overly broad or vague requests.
“We vigorously protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement,” Google’s director of law enforcement and information security Richard Salgado told us. “We require a warrant and push to narrow the scope of these particular demands when overly broad, including by objecting in court when appropriate.
“These data demands represent less than one per cent of total warrants and a small fraction of the overall legal demands for user data that we currently receive.”
Here’s another example of what seems to be about data leading to a false arrest.
According to the lawsuit, police investigating the murder knew months before they arrested Molina that the location data obtained from Google often showed him in two places at once, and that he was not the only person who drove the Honda registered under his name.
Avondale police knew almost two months before they arrested Molina that another man his stepfather sometimes drove Molina’s white Honda. On October 25, 2018, police obtained records showing that Molina’s Honda had been impounded earlier that year after Molina’s stepfather was caught driving the car without a license.
Data obtained by Avondale police from Google did show that a device logged into Molina’s Google account was in the area at the time of Knight’s murder. Yet on a different date, the location data from Google also showed that Molina was at a retirement community in Scottsdale (where his mother worked) while debit card records showed that Molina had made a purchase at a Walmart across town at the exact same time.
Molina’s attorneys argue that this and other instances like it should have made it clear to Avondale police that Google’s account-location data is not always reliable in determining the actual location of a person.
“About” searches might be rare, but that doesn’t make them a good idea. We have knowingly and willingly built the architecture of a police state, just so companies can show us ads. (And it is increasingly apparent that the advertising-supported Internet is heading for a crash.)
Everyone with a website needs to know some basic facts about their website: what pages are people visiting? Where in the world are they? What other sites sent traffic to my website?
There are “free” analytics tools out there, but they come at a cost: not money, but your users’ privacy. Today we’re announcing a brand new, privacy-first analytics service that’s open to everyone — even if they’re not already a Cloudflare customer. And if you’re a Cloudflare customer, we’ve enhanced our analytics to make them even more powerful than before.
The most important analytics feature: Privacy
The most popular analytics services available were built to help ad-supported sites sell more ads. But, a lot of websites don’t have ads. So if you use those services, you’re giving up the privacy of your users in order to understand how what you’ve put online is performing.
Cloudflare’s business has never been built around tracking users or selling advertising. We don’t want to know what you do on the Internet — it’s not our business. So we wanted to build an analytics service that gets back to what really matters for web creators, not necessarily marketers, and to give web creators the information they need in a simple, clean way that doesn’t sacrifice their visitors’ privacy. And giving web creators these analytics shouldn’t depend on their use of Cloudflare’s infrastructure for performance and security. (More on that in a bit.)
What does it mean for us to make our analytics “privacy-first”? Most importantly, it means we don’t need to track individual users over time for the purposes of serving analytics. We don’t use any client-side state, like cookies or localStorage, for the purposes of tracking users. And we don’t “fingerprint” individuals via their IP address, User Agent string, or any other data for the purpose of displaying analytics. (We consider fingerprinting even more intrusive than cookies, because users have no way to opt out.)
Counting visits without tracking users
One of the most essential stats about any website is: “how many people went there”? Analytics tools frequently show counts of “unique” visitors, which requires tracking individual users by a cookie or IP address.
We use the concept of a visit: a privacy-friendly measure of how people have interacted with your website. A visit is defined simply as a successful page view that has an HTTP referer that doesn’t match the hostname of the request. This tells you how many times people came to your website and clicked around before navigating away, but doesn’t require tracking individuals.
A visit has slightly different semantics from a “unique”, and you should expect this number to differ from other analytics tools.
All of the details, none of the bots
Our analytics deliver the most important metrics about your website, like page views and visits. But we know that an essential analytics feature is flexibility: the ability to add arbitrary filters, and slice-and-dice data as you see fit. Our analytics can show you the top hostnames, URLs, countries, and other critical metrics like status codes. You can filter on any of these metrics with a click and see the whole dashboard update.
I’m especially excited about two features in our time series charts: the ability to drag-to-zoom into a narrower time range, and the ability to “group by” different dimensions to see data in a different way. This is a super powerful way to drill into an anomaly in traffic and quickly see what’s going on. For example, you might notice a spike in traffic, zoom into that spike, and then try different groupings to see what contributed the extra clicks. A GIF is worth a thousand words:
This is all possible thanks to our ABR analytics technology, which enables us to serve analytics very quickly for websites large and small. Check out our blog post to learn more about how this works.
Edge or Browser analytics? Why not both?
Historically, Cloudflare has collected analytics data at our edge. This has some nice benefits over traditional, client-side analytics approaches:
You can see all of the traffic back to your origin server, even if an HTML page doesn’t load
We can detect (and block bots), apply Firewall rules, and generally scrub traffic of unwanted noise
You can measure the performance of your origin server
More commonly, most web analytics providers use client-side measurement. This has some benefits as well:
You can understand performance as your users see it — e.g. how long did the page actually take to render
Ultimately, we want our customers to have the best of both worlds. We think it’s really powerful to get web traffic numbers directly from the edge. We also launched Browser Insights a year ago to augment our existing edge analytics with more performance information, and today Browser Insights are taking a big step forward by incorporating Web Vitals metrics.
But, we know not everyone can modify their DNS to take advantage of Cloudflare’s edge services. That’s why today we’re announcing a free, standalone analytics product for everyone.
How do I get it?
For existing Cloudflare customers on our Pro, Biz, and Enterprise plans, just go to your Analytics tab! Starting today, you’ll see a banner to opt-in to the new analytics experience. (We plan to make this the default in a few weeks.)
The evolution of analytics at Cloudflare
Just over a year ago, Cloudflare’s analytics consisted of a simple set of metrics: cached vs uncached data transfer, or how many requests were blocked by the Firewall. Today we provide flexible, powerful analytics across all our products, including Firewall, Cache, Load Balancing and Network traffic.
While we’ve been focused on building analytics about our products, we realized that our analytics are also powerful as a standalone product. Today is just the first step on that journey. We have so much more planned: from real-time analytics, to ever-more performance analysis, and even allowing customers to add custom events.
We want to hear what you want most out of analytics — drop a note in the comments to let us know what you want to see next.
Abstract: Executive Order 12,333 (“EO 12333”) is a 1980s Executive Order signed by President Ronald Reagan that, among other things, establishes an overarching policy framework for the Executive Branch’s spying powers. Although electronic surveillance programs authorized by EO 12333 generally target foreign intelligence from foreign targets, its permissive targeting standards allow for the substantial collection of Americans’ communications containing little to no foreign intelligence value. This fact alone necessitates closer inspection.
This working draft conducts such an inspection by collecting and coalescing the various declassifications, disclosures, legislative investigations, and news reports concerning EO 12333 electronic surveillance programs in order to provide a better understanding of how the Executive Branch implements the order and the surveillance programs it authorizes. The Article pays particular attention to EO 12333’s designation of the National Security Agency as primarily responsible for conducting signals intelligence, which includes the installation of malware, the analysis of internet traffic traversing the telecommunications backbone, the hacking of U.S.-based companies like Yahoo and Google, and the analysis of Americans’ communications, contact lists, text messages, geolocation data, and other information.
After exploring the electronic surveillance programs authorized by EO 12333, this Article proposes reforms to the existing policy framework, including narrowing the aperture of authorized surveillance, increasing privacy standards for the retention of data, and requiring greater transparency and accountability.
Shorter summary: it’s not the surveillance part, it’s the fact that these companies are monopolies.
I think it’s both. Surveillance capitalism has some unique properties that make it particularly unethical and incompatible with a free society, and Zuboff makes them clear in her book. But the current acceptance of monopolies in our society is also extremely damaging — which Doctorow makes clear.
We examine the threat to individuals’ privacy based on the feasibility of reidentifying users through distinctive profiles of their browsing history visible to websites and third parties. This work replicates and extends the 2012 paper Why Johnny Can’t Browse in Peace: On the Uniqueness of Web Browsing History Patterns. The original work demonstrated that browsing profiles are highly distinctive and stable.We reproduce those results and extend the original work to detail the privacy risk posed by the aggregation of browsing histories. Our dataset consists of two weeks of browsing data from ~52,000 Firefox users. Our work replicates the original paper’s core findings by identifying 48,919 distinct browsing profiles, of which 99% are unique. High uniqueness hold seven when histories are truncated to just 100 top sites. Wethen find that for users who visited 50 or more distinct do-mains in the two-week data collection period, ~50% can be reidentified using the top 10k sites. Reidentifiability rose to over 80% for users that browsed 150 or more distinct domains.Finally, we observe numerous third parties pervasive enough to gather web histories sufficient to leverage browsing history as an identifier.
One of the authors of the original study comments on the replication.
The Wall Street Journal has an article about a company called Anomaly Six LLC that has an SDK that’s used by “more than 500 mobile applications.” Through that SDK, the company collects location data from users, which it then sells.
Anomaly Six is a federal contractor that provides global-location-data products to branches of the U.S. government and private-sector clients. The company told The Wall Street Journal it restricts the sale of U.S. mobile phone movement data only to nongovernmental, private-sector clients.
Anomaly Six was founded by defense-contracting veterans who worked closely with government agencies for most of their careers and built a company to cater in part to national-security agencies, according to court records and interviews.
Just one of the many Internet companies spying on our every move for profit. And I’m sure they sell to the US government; it’s legal and why would they forgo those sales?
I just published a new paper with Karen Levy of Cornell: “Privacy Threats in Intimate Relationships.”
Abstract: This article provides an overview of intimate threats: a class of privacy threats that can arise within our families, romantic partnerships, close friendships, and caregiving relationships. Many common assumptions about privacy are upended in the context of these relationships, and many otherwise effective protective measures fail when applied to intimate threats. Those closest to us know the answers to our secret questions, have access to our devices, and can exercise coercive power over us. We survey a range of intimate relationships and describe their common features. Based on these features, we explore implications for both technical privacy design and policy, and offer design recommendations for ameliorating intimate privacy risks.
This is an important issue that has gotten much too little attention in the cybersecurity community.
Corporate clients will get access to Zoom’s end-to-end encryption service now being developed, but Yuan said free users won’t enjoy that level of privacy, which makes it impossible for third parties to decipher communications.
“Free users for sure we don’t want to give that because we also want to work together with FBI, with local law enforcement in case some people use Zoom for a bad purpose,” Yuan said on the call.
This is just dumb. Imagine the scene in the terrorist/drug kingpin/money launderer hideout: “I’m sorry, boss. We could have have strong encryption to secure our bad intentions from the FBI, but we can’t afford the $20.” This decision will only affect protesters and dissidents and human rights workers and journalists.
Nico, it’s incorrect to say that free calls won’t be encrypted and this turns out to be a really difficult balancing act between different kinds of harms. More details here:
Some facts on Zoom’s current plans for E2E encryption, which are complicated by the product requirements for an enterprise conferencing product and some legitimate safety issues. The E2E design is available here: https://github.com/zoom/zoom-e2e-whitepaper/blob/master/zoom_e2e.pdf
I read that document, and it doesn’t explain why end-to-end encryption is only available to paying customers. And note that Stamos said “encrypted” and not “end-to-end encrypted.” He knows the difference.
Anyway, people were rightly incensed by his remarks. And yesterday, Yuan tried to clarify:
Yuan sought to assuage users’ concerns Wednesday in his weekly webinar, saying the company was striving to “do the right thing” for vulnerable groups, including children and hate-crime victims, whose abuse is sometimes broadcast through Zoom’s platform.
“We plan to provide end-to-end encryption to users for whom we can verify identity, thereby limiting harm to vulnerable groups,” he said. “I wanted to clarify that Zoom does not monitor meeting content. We do not have backdoors where participants, including Zoom employees or law enforcement, can enter meetings without being visible to others. None of this will change.”
Notice that is specifically did not say that he was offering end-to-end encryption to users of the free platform. Only to “users we can verify identity,” which I’m guessing means users that give him a credit card number.
We are seeing some misunderstandings on Twitter today around our encryption. We want to provide these facts.
Zoom does not provide information to law enforcement except in circumstances such as child sexual abuse.
Zoom does not proactively monitor meeting content.
Zoom does no have backdoors where Zoom or others can enter meetings without being visible to participants.
AES 256 GCM encryption is turned on for all Zoom users — free and paid.
Those facts have nothing to do with any “misunderstanding.” That was about end-to-end encryption, which the statement very specifically left out of that last sentence. The corporate communications have been clear and consistent.
Come on, Zoom. You were doing so well. Of course you should offer premium features to paying customers, but please don’t include security and privacy in those premium features. They should be available to everyone.
And, hey, this is kind of a dumb time to side with the police over protesters.
I have emailed the CEO, and will report back if I hear back. But for now, assume that the free version of Zoom will not support end-to-end encryption.
EDITED TO ADD (6/4): I understand that this is complicated, both technically and politically. (Note, though, Jitsi is doing it.) And, yes, lots of people confused end-to-end encryption with link encryption. (My readers tend to be more sophisticated than that.) My worry that the “we’ll offer end-to-end encryption only to paying customers we can verify, even though there’s plenty of evidence that ‘bad purpose’ people will just get paid accounts” story plays into the dangerous narrative that encryption itself is dangerous when widely available. And I disagree with the notion that the possibility of child exploitation is a valid reason to deny security to large groups of people.
Once the precedent is set that E2E encryption is too “dangerous” to hand to the masses, the genie is out of the bottle. And once corporate America accepts that private communications are too politically risky to deploy, it’s going to be hard to put it back.
It’s an interesting read, mostly about the government surveillance of him and other journalists. He speaks about an NSA program called FIRSTFRUITS that specifically spies on US journalists. (This isn’t news; we learned about this in 2006. But there are lots of new details.)
One paragraph in the excerpt struck me:
Years later Richard Ledgett, who oversaw the NSA’s media-leaks task force and went on to become the agency’s deputy director, told me matter-of-factly to assume that my defenses had been breached. “My take is, whatever you guys had was pretty immediately in the hands of any foreign intelligence service that wanted it,” he said, “whether it was Russians, Chinese, French, the Israelis, the Brits. Between you, Poitras, and Greenwald, pretty sure you guys can’t stand up to a full-fledged nation-state attempt to exploit your IT. To include not just remote stuff, but hands-on, sneak-into-your-house-at-night kind of stuff. That’s my guess.”
I remember thinking the same thing. It was the summer of 2013, and I was visiting Glenn Greenwald in Rio de Janeiro. This was just after Greenwald’s partner was detained in the UK trying to ferry some documents from Laura Poitras in Berlin back to Greenwald. It was an opsec disaster; they would have been much more secure if they’d emailed the encrypted files. In fact, I told them to do that, every single day. I wanted them to send encrypted random junk back and forth constantly, to hide when they were actually sharing real data.
As soon as I saw their house I realized exactly what Ledgett said. I remember standing outside the house, looking into the dense forest for TEMPEST receivers. I didn’t see any, which only told me they were well hidden. I assumed black-bag teams from various countries had been all over the house when they were out for dinner, and wondered what would have happened if teams from different countries bumped into each other. I assumed that all the countries Ledgett listed above — plus the US and a few more — had a full take of what Snowden gave the journalists. These journalists against those governments just wasn’t a fair fight.
I’m looking forward to reading Gellman’s book. I’m kind of surprised no one sent me an advance copy.
The California Consumer Privacy Act is a lesson in missed opportunities. It was passed in haste, to stop a ballot initiative that would have been even more restrictive:
In September 2017, Alastair Mactaggart and Mary Ross proposed a statewide ballot initiative entitled the “California Consumer Privacy Act.” Ballot initiatives are a process under California law in which private citizens can propose legislation directly to voters, and pursuant to which such legislation can be enacted through voter approval without any action by the state legislature or the governor. While the proposed privacy initiative was initially met with significant opposition, particularly from large technology companies, some of that opposition faded in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Mark Zuckerberg’s April 2018 testimony before Congress. By May 2018, the initiative appeared to have garnered sufficient support to appear on the November 2018 ballot. On June 21, 2018, the sponsors of the ballot initiative and state legislators then struck a deal: in exchange for withdrawing the initiative, the state legislature would pass an agreed version of the California Consumer Privacy Act. The initiative was withdrawn, and the state legislature passed (and the Governor signed) the CCPA on June 28, 2018.
Since then, it was substantially amended — that is, watered down — at the request of various surveillance capitalism companies. Enforcement was supposed to start this year, but we haven’t seen much yet.
And we could have had that ballot initiative.
It looks like Alastair Mactaggart and others are back.
Advocacy group Californians for Consumer Privacy, which started the push for a state-wide data privacy law, announced this week that it has the signatures it needs to get version 2.0 of its privacy rules on the US state’s ballot in November, and submitted its proposal to Sacramento.
This time the goal is to tighten up the rules that its previously ballot measure managed to get into law, despite the determined efforts of internet giants like Google and Facebook to kill it. In return for the legislation being passed, that ballot measure was dropped. Now, it looks like the campaigners are taking their fight to a people’s vote after all.
The new proposal would add more rights, including the use and sale of sensitive personal information, such as health and financial information, racial or ethnic origin, and precise geolocation. It would also triples existing fines for companies caught breaking the rules surrounding data on children (under 16s) and would require an opt-in to even collect such data.
The proposal would also give Californians the right to know when their information is used to make fundamental decisions about them, such as getting credit or employment offers. And it would require political organizations to divulge when they use similar data for campaigns.
And just to push the tech giants from fury into full-blown meltdown the new ballot measure would require any amendments to the law to require a majority vote in the legislature, effectively stripping their vast lobbying powers and cutting off the multitude of different ways the measures and its enforcement can be watered down within the political process.
I don’t know why they accepted the compromise in the first place. It was obvious that the legislative process would be hijacked by the powerful tech companies. I support getting this onto the ballot this year.
“My problem with contact tracing apps is that they have absolutely no value,” Bruce Schneier, a privacy expert and fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, told BuzzFeed News. “I’m not even talking about the privacy concerns, I mean the efficacy. Does anybody think this will do something useful? … This is just something governments want to do for the hell of it. To me, it’s just techies doing techie things because they don’t know what else to do.”
I haven’t blogged about this because I thought it was obvious. But from the tweets and emails I have received, it seems not.
This is a classic identification problem, and efficacy depends on two things: false positives and false negatives.
False positives: Any app will have a precise definition of a contact: let’s say it’s less than six feet for more than ten minutes. The false positive rate is the percentage of contacts that don’t result in transmissions. This will be because of several reasons. One, the app’s location and proximity systems — based on GPS and Bluetooth — just aren’t accurate enough to capture every contact. Two, the app won’t be aware of any extenuating circumstances, like walls or partitions. And three, not every contact results in transmission; the disease has some transmission rate that’s less than 100% (and I don’t know what that is).
False negatives: This is the rate the app fails to register a contact when an infection occurs. This also will be because of several reasons. One, errors in the app’s location and proximity systems. Two, transmissions that occur from people who don’t have the app (even Singapore didn’t get above a 20% adoption rate for the app). And three, not every transmission is a result of that precisely defined contact — the virus sometimes travels further.
Assume you take the app out grocery shopping with you and it subsequently alerts you of a contact. What should you do? It’s not accurate enough for you to quarantine yourself for two weeks. And without ubiquitous, cheap, fast, and accurate testing, you can’t confirm the app’s diagnosis. So the alert is useless.
Similarly, assume you take the app out grocery shopping and it doesn’t alert you of any contact. Are you in the clear? No, you’re not. You actually have no idea if you’ve been infected.
The end result is an app that doesn’t work. People will post their bad experiences on social media, and people will read those posts and realize that the app is not to be trusted. That loss of trust is even worse than having no app at all.
It has nothing to do with privacy concerns. The idea that contact tracing can be done with an app, and not human health professionals, is just plain dumb.
Facebook Inc. in 2018 beat back federal prosecutors seeking to wiretap its encrypted Messenger app. Now the American Civil Liberties Union is seeking to find out how.
The entire proceeding was confidential, with only the result leaking to the press. Lawyers for the ACLU and the Washington Post on Tuesday asked a San Francisco-based federal court of appeals to unseal the judge’s decision, arguing the public has a right to know how the law is being applied, particularly in the area of privacy.
The Facebook case stems from a federal investigation of members of the violent MS-13 criminal gang. Prosecutors tried to hold Facebook in contempt after the company refused to help investigators wiretap its Messenger app, but the judge ruled against them. If the decision is unsealed, other tech companies will likely try to use its reasoning to ward off similar government requests in the future.
OneZero is tracking thirty countries around the world who are implementing surveillance programs in the wake of COVID-19:
The most common form of surveillance implemented to battle the pandemic is the use of smartphone location data, which can track population-level movement down to enforcing individual quarantines. Some governments are making apps that offer coronavirus health information, while also sharing location information with authorities for a period of time. For instance, in early March, the Iranian government released an app that it pitched as a self-diagnostic tool. While the tool’s efficacy was likely low, given reports of asymptomatic carriers of the virus, the app saved location data of millions of Iranians, according to a Vice report.
One of the most alarming measures being implemented is in Argentina, where those who are caught breaking quarantine are being forced to download an app that tracks their location. In Hong Kong, those arriving in the airport are given electronic tracking bracelets that must be synced to their home location through their smartphone’s GPS signal.
Google and Apple have announced a joint project to create a privacy-preserving COVID-19 contact tracing app. (Details, such as we have them, are here.) It’s similar to the app being developed at MIT, and similar to others being described and developed elsewhere. It’s nice seeing the privacy protections; they’re well thought out.
I was going to write a long essay about the security and privacy concerns, but Ross Anderson beat me to it. (Note that some of his comments are UK-specific.)
First, it isn’t anonymous. Covid-19 is a notifiable disease so a doctor who diagnoses you must inform the public health authorities, and if they have the bandwidth they call you and ask who you’ve been in contact with. They then call your contacts in turn. It’s not about consent or anonymity, so much as being persuasive and having a good bedside manner.
I’m relaxed about doing all this under emergency public-health powers, since this will make it harder for intrusive systems to persist after the pandemic than if they have some privacy theater that can be used to argue that the whizzy new medi-panopticon is legal enough to be kept running.
Second, contact tracers have access to all sorts of other data such as public transport ticketing and credit-card records. This is how a contact tracer in Singapore is able to phone you and tell you that the taxi driver who took you yesterday from Orchard Road to Raffles has reported sick, so please put on a mask right now and go straight home. This must be controlled; Taiwan lets public-health staff access such material in emergencies only.
Third, you can’t wait for diagnoses. In the UK, you only get a test if you’re a VIP or if you get admitted to hospital. Even so the results take 1-3 days to come back. While the VIPs share their status on twitter or facebook, the other diagnosed patients are often too sick to operate their phones.
Fourth, the public health authorities need geographical data for purposes other than contact tracing – such as to tell the army where to build more field hospitals, and to plan shipments of scarce personal protective equipment. There are already apps that do symptom tracking but more would be better. So the UK app will ask for the first three characters of your postcode, which is about enough to locate which hospital you’d end up in.
Fifth, although the cryptographers – and now Google and Apple – are discussing more anonymous variants of the Singapore app, that’s not the problem. Anyone who’s worked on abuse will instantly realise that a voluntary app operated by anonymous actors is wide open to trolling. The performance art people will tie a phone to a dog and let it run around the park; the Russians will use the app to run service-denial attacks and spread panic; and little Johnny will self-report symptoms to get the whole school sent home.
To me, the real problems aren’t around privacy and security. The efficacy of any app-based contact tracing is still unproven. A “contact” from the point of view of an app isn’t the same as an epidemiological contact. And the ratio of infections to contacts is high. We would have to deal with the false positives (being close to someone else, but separated by a partition or other barrier) and the false negatives (not being close to someone else, but contracting the disease through a mutually touched object). And without cheap, fast, and accurate testing, the information from any of these apps isn’t very useful. So I agree with Ross that this is primarily an exercise in that false syllogism: Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, we must do it. It’s techies proposing tech solutions to what is primarily a social problem.
EDITED TO ADD: Susan Landau on contact tracing apps and how they’re being oversold. And Farzad Mostashari, former coordinator for health IT at the Department of Health and Human Services, on contact tracing apps.
As long as 1) every contact does not result in an infection, and 2) a large percentage of people with the disease are asymptomatic and don’t realize they have it, I can’t see how this sort of app is valuable. If we had cheap, fast, and accurate testing for everyone on demand…maybe. But I still don’t think so.
EDITED TO ADD (4/15): More details from Apple and Google.
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